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Originally published Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

An intelligent discussion about life

"Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" is a trenchant new film by actor/economist Ben Stein, the man first made famous in "Ferris Bueller's...

Special to The Times

"Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" is a trenchant new film by actor/economist Ben Stein, the man first made famous in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." He's now tackling with humorous dudgeon the classic example of ideological science, Darwinian evolution. Stein shows Darwinists insistently misrepresenting the scientific case against their theory. Where facts and reason might fail to persuade, personal attacks are employed, sometimes even by organizations supposedly committed to civil discourse.

When I was taught Darwin's theory in college more than four decades ago, it was represented as unassailable. But I also was taught in those days to respect academic freedom, which is a good standard to apply in any field. In the 1990s, before intelligent design was added to the ideas studied at Discovery Institute, I learned about an assault on the academic freedom of Dean Kenyon, a biologist and author at San Francisco State University who had come to view Darwin's theory as flawed. At first, the effort to restrain him from teaching seemed like just another skirmish over political correctness.

Then, following the Kenyon case, I began to examine the account of life's development that I once had been taught so dogmatically. One after another of the demonstrations of the theory that supposedly were "certain" and "conclusive" when I was a student — such as Ernst Haeckel's embryo drawings that showed various animals looking almost identical in the earliest stages of life — have been abandoned or replaced. What has not changed is the dogmatism.

I soon came to realize that differences over the development of life, unlike other disputes, spark so much controversy because the collateral stakes are higher than they seem. Where you stand on the origins question often influences your worldview on issues of human life, ranging from cloning to euthanasia. Are we ultimately the product of purpose and design? If so, we would seem to be heirs to a more-or-less settled moral reality. Or, is man the unguided "result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind," as Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson wrote? In that case, perhaps we can conceive our own values.

Public discussion on evolution is complicated further by confusion over words that lack any constant and agreed meaning. Terms like "evolve" and "theory" have different definitions in science than they do in everyday speech. Even among scientists, they are subject to varying understandings.

People frequently use the word "evolve" as a genteel way of saying "change," as in, "The Toyota Camry has not evolved much this year." But that makes no sense as a scientific expression. Cars don't "evolve" in the way most Darwinists mean — an undirected process of small, incremental mutations acted on by natural selection to produce new species. Cars are designed. Intelligence is involved. Auto designs — like ideas or fashions or cities — don't "evolve." My own ideas on evolution didn't evolve; I changed my mind.

Unfortunately, people sometimes are told that Darwinian evolution simply demonstrates "changes over time." If that were so, how could any sensible person object to it? Even ardent critics of Darwinism accept "microevolution" — change over time within species. Animal and plant breeding, after all, are kinds of human-guided microevolution. Nature, too, plainly conducts microevolution.

But classical Darwinists such as Francisco Ayala and Richard Dawkins assert much more. Dawkins, for example, acknowledges that living organisms "give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose." But, he argues that this appearance of design is completely misleading because undirected Darwinian processes — random mutations and natural selection — can produce the features of living systems that look designed. In Ayala's words, natural selection produces "design without a designer."

Advocates of the theory of intelligent design see things differently. They think there are discernible features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process like natural selection. They don't dispute that life changes over time; they dispute that undirected processes produced all of that change. They see evidence of actual, not just illusory, design.

For example, my colleague, philosopher of science Stephen Meyer, argues that digital code stored in the DNA molecule points to intelligent design. He notes that DNA stores information using sequences of chemicals that "function just like alphabetic characters in a written text or binary digits in a software code." This discovery has profound implications.

As he explains, "Whenever we trace information back to its source — whether we are looking at an ancient hieroglyphic, a headline in a newspaper or software code in a computer program, we always come to an intelligent agent — to a mind, not a material process. So when we find information in life in the form of the digital code in DNA, the most likely explanation is that DNA also had an intelligent source." In a forthcoming book Meyer shows that the theory is scientifically testable.

Still, many Darwinists charge that intelligent design, or ID, is "creationism in disguise." But the case for ID is based on scientific evidence, not Scripture. Indeed, some creationists attack ID for not making a case based on the Bible and for employing evidence that shows the Earth is billions of years old.

None of this is to say that intelligent design doesn't have larger implications. Arguably, ID is friendly to theism, just as Darwinism is friendly to atheism. That is what upsets the fervent atheist Richard Dawkins, who in "Expelled" says he can consider intelligent design as an explanation for the origin of life if it means space aliens brought life to Earth, but could not allow any possibility that God might have had a role in design.

Of course, you don't have to be religious to support ID. The British philosopher and longtime atheist, Antony Flew, for example, has embraced intelligent design. On the other hand, you don't have to be an atheist to accept Darwinism; a few churches even celebrate "Darwin Day." Most ID scientists (but not all) do believe in God and most Darwinists (but not all) do not. A 2003 Cornell University survey of leading evolutionary biologists showed that 87 percent rejected the existence of God.

Scholars seeking a compromise that brings religion directly into the scientific discussion have offered the comforting possibility that God did the creating, but did it through Darwinian evolution. Guidance of an unguided process is the idea. But this vague proposition contradicts what almost all leading Darwinist scientists, including Dawkins, emphatically contend. In Darwin's universe, natural selection is blind, mutations are undirected and humanity is an unintended outcome. If the evolutionary process is guided, then it no longer is Darwinian. And if the evolutionary process is unguided, it allows no room for God. Logically, not even God can guide an unguided process.

The public hasn't been told most of what I have just described. Many in the media typically define ID as a proposition that "life is so complex it must have been the product of a supernatural power." But that mixes a scientific proposition with its philosophical implications. ID scientists don't do that.

Media also typically greet reports of evolutionary success with uncritical acclaim, while growing scientific dissent from Darwinism (more than 700 scientists have signed a "Dissent from Darwin" statement) and production of peer-reviewed science publications by pro-ID scientists are ignored. Even a federal judge in Pennsylvania copied a false American Civil Liberties Union and Darwinist canard that there are no such peer-reviewed publications friendly to ID.

Some of the misinformation is purposeful, such as the effort to disallow ID by misdefinition, while some is due to ignorance and a bland assumption that one can understand a complex scientific dispute easily. We even read of politicians who profess to agree with ID, but misstate what it is. (Save us from our friends.)

On the other hand, you don't have to be a genius to grasp the evidence for and against Darwin's theory. We teach evolution in 10th grade, after all.

With all this in mind, you would think that people could agree that differences over matters of evidence on issue of life's origins can best be resolved if different sides are asked to face off with their best spokesmen and their best arguments.

But instead of following such a policy, most Darwinists have avoided debates, and in universities have stooped to denial of academic tenure, promotions and even graduate-student status to dissenters. They either ignore the case against Darwin'stheory or debunk a straw-man version of it.

The film "Expelled" explores a number of cases of academic persecution, making clear that what is taught in high school, however important in the public eye, probably matters less to the future of science than whether dissenting scientists are able to teach and conduct research in universities.

Precisely because the majority in science has been wrong on note-worthy occasions, progress often does depend on courageous dissenters. The principle is clear: "A fair result can be obtained only by fully balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question." So wrote Charles Darwin.

Bruce Chapman, president of Discovery Institute, has posted an extensively footnoted version of this article at www.discovery.org/a/4522

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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